Classical Conditioning in Dogs

‘Classical conditioning’ is a term originally coined by Ivan Pavlov.  This type of conditioning is highly relevant to dog training.

While using dogs to experiment on digestion, Pavlov noticed dogs had what he called “psychic secretion” of saliva, where the dogs seem to know when they were going to be fed and began to salivate.  On further investigation, he found that whenever his lab assistant entered the room, the dogs began to salivate.  Salivation is a reflex, that is, a behaviour outside of the dog’s control, but the dog learnt to exhibit this reflex when associated with an incoming lab assistant.  Pavlov modified his experiment to further examine this phenomena.

Poodle type dog jumping over an agility course jump.

From here, the specifics of classical conditioning (sometimes also called Pavlovian conditioning) became published and well known. Basically, classical conditioning is where a previously neutral thing becomes paired with the reflexes associated with something else.  So, in this example, the ‘neutral thing’ was the lab assistant, and the reflex associated with food (salivating) was associated with the lab assistant.

Associated with this phenomena is a bunch of terminology;

Neutral stimulus (NS) – this is the thing that doesn’t mean anything to the dog

Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) – this is the thing that naturally means something to the dog

Unconditioned response (UCR) – this is the natural response the dog gives to the unconditioned stimulus

Conditioned stimulus (CS) – the neutral stimulus, at the end of the conditioning process, becomes the conditioned stimulus

Conditioned response (CR) – the unconditioned response, at the end of the conditioning process, becomes the conditioned response


Some Examples

Let’s use the example that Pavlov found – whenever the lab assistant entered the room, the dog’s began to salivate.  In this case, the neutral stimulus was the lab assistant.  The unconditioned stimulus was the food and the unconditioned response was salivation.  At the end of the conditioning process (i.e. after several repetitions), the conditioned stimulus was the lab assistant, and the conditioned response was salivation.

A common use of classical conditioning is to use a clicker (a process called ‘charging the clicker’).  This is where a click from a clicker is paired with food.  In this case, the neutral stimulus is the sound of the click.  The unconditioned stimulus is the food and the unconditioned response is the enthusiasm and anticipation associated with food (the ‘yipee emotion’).  The conditioned stimulus is the click and the conditioned response is the ‘yipee emotion’.

Think about how many dogs are scared of the vet clinic.  In this case, the vet clinic was once the neutral stimulus (it once meant nothing to the dog).  The unconditioned stimulus is probably a combination of rough handling, painful handling, owner stress and emotion, and being left at the clinic.  The unconditioned response is emotion such as fear, pain, stress, and anxiety.  After several events at the vet clinic (or maybe just one bad one), the conditioned stimulus becomes the vet clinic, and the conditioned response is fear, stress, and anxiety.


What good is this to dog training?

Real world examples, like those above, hopefully illustrate that dogs are making these types of associations on a day to day basis.  When you open the dog food at home, you probably have a dog that begins to salivate.  When the dog hears you pick up your keys to leave for home, your dog probably has some mild anxiety about this.  When the dog sees you get his lead, it may show enthusiasm for going for a walk.  When a dog sees another dog on a walk, they may respond aggressively to the sight of another dog.

All this goes to prove dogs are being classically conditioned on a daily basis, without any direct training plan created by people. But it also means that we can use classical conditioning and create training plans that seek to maximise these associations to our advantage.


Further Reading:

Dr Ian Dunbar on Classical Conditioning

Paul McGreevy on Classical Conditioning

Learning Theory 101: Classical Conditioning from Crystal at Reactive Champion.

Charging a clicker.

Classical conditioning is related to counter conditioning.

5 thoughts on “Classical Conditioning in Dogs

  1. I can’t believe no-one has commented on this post yet! I’m definitely bookmarking this one for easy reference to all of these definitions :D Great examples, loved the one about the vet (except, my dog Caspian has it backwards, he loves going to the vet to see all the different animals!)

    • Thanks for your kind words. :) Classical conditioning is (almost) done to death on dog blogs, so I tried to keep it as relevant to actual dog training as possible. My dogs love the vet too! But it may be associated with never being under anaesthetic (they have never been ‘left at the vet’), and the fact I take them in as puppies and just feed them meals in there so they learn that it’s a good place.

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  3. Great post on classical conditioning! Associations are strong for dogs. Classical conditioning is a powerful tool (along side operant conditioning) to have in your bag of tricks, it allows me to load my clicker. It also allows me to get my working dogs to follow a laser to search for bombs, drugs or a bite. People who understand how to use it to their dog’s benefit make their dogs better, people who don’t understand it can reinforce a lot of unwanted behaviors unknowingly.

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